Harvard Team Wins $10,000 Prize in National Urban Design Competition

A team of students from HBS and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) recently competed in the 2nd annual Urban Land Institute (ULI) Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition. The event was held over the past two months, and finalists presented on March 29 in Pittsburgh, PA.

The ULI Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition was created in
2002 to honor the legacy of urban development pioneer Gerald D. Hines, chairman of the Hines real estate organization and 2002 recipient of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. The four finalist entries were selected from 56 submissions from 25 universities across the United States and from Canada.

Arizona State University received $50,000 for placing first, with Harvard, MIT, and Stanford/UC Berkeley receiving $10,000 each for placing second through fourth. Two other Harvard teams received Honorable Mention.

A unique aspect of this competition is the requirement that at least three majors in different areas be represented. The HBS Real Estate Club collaborated with the GSD Real Estate Development Club to form interdisciplinary teams that would be strong in terms of both design and economic analysis. The finalist Harvard team consisted of Josh Katzin (NI), JD/MBA; Jun Lyle Kamesaki, Master of Design Studies in Real Estate and Urban Development; Elizabeth Martin, Master of Urban Planning; Modesto Bigas-Valedon, Master of Architecture in Urban Design; and Kenneth Francis, Master of Landscape Architecture. Gee Kim (NB) was on another Harvard team that received Honorable Mention.

This year’s competition required teams to make proposals for the development of a 57-acre former rail yard that sits in Pittsburgh’s “Strip District” neighborhood. The city of Pittsburgh is going through economic difficulties as it transitions after globalization has hit its industrial-based economy. When the city was riding high on steel, it missed the opportunity to build up other bases to round out its economy. Over the last 50 years, steel production has left the country to the extent that the steel industry now lobbies in Washington for subsidies to keep it afloat.

For these reasons, Pittsburgh is looking for new avenues for growth.

One aspect of that growth plan involves the productive use of riverfront properties that were once occupied by steel mills, rail yards, and other tenants that no longer play a part of the city’s post-industrial future.

These sites tend to be brownfields, tainted by environmental damage, so some sort of costly environmental remediation is also part of any redevelopment in the area.

The site offered a number of possibilities, given its location along the Allegheny River, its proximity to the downtown central business district, the fact that it is large and mostly vacant (used as surface parking), and the fact that it is owned by a single company. On the other hand, there were lots of downsides as well: the site is bisected by two bridges that break up the property into three discreet sections, there is a historic warehouse building that runs along one edge of the site, the site would have to be environmentally remediated, and, most importantly, the economy of the city of Pittsburgh may not be able to justify much more new space or high enough rents to justify construction. To help drive economic feasibility, the teams were encouraged to think of the project as a private-public partnership in which the city would contribute $40 million of public funding.

The Harvard team’s plan (called “Strip Landing”) proposed, in its first phase, a $100 million project that would encourage the Strip District to take on a larger residential component while maintaining its mixed use character. The following is an excerpt from the team’s creative project description: “Strip Landing harnesses the existing assets surrounding the competition site to create a unique urban neighborhood for the city of Pittsburgh. In Phase One, we extend the urban fabric of the Strip District to the riverfront and introduce the riverfront, in the form of a community park, into the Strip. On one edge, a retail corridor activates Smallman Street. On another, the Allegheny riverfront is softened with a greenway and invigorated with waterfront cafes and nightlife. In between, a live/work typology creates a vibrant urban living space. In subsequent phases, we add connections to residential expansion eastward and to the Cultural District. The underlying principle is that the long-term value of this site is intertwined with the success of the Strip District. Strip Landing initiates the Strip’s transition from a neighborhood in which few live to a vibrant community for dynamic young people that Pittsburgh wants to attract and retain.”

Making it past two rounds to the finals was a tremendous accomplishment in its own right. Josh Katzin (NI) said, “Working with a creative team on a project like this is a great opportunity that I would recommend to people for next year. You just have to know that architects operate under an entirely different schedule – one with frequent all nighters and endless iterations down to the wire.” Working on no sleep, the team put the final touches on their pitch boards at 6:00 AM the morning of the presentation and caught an 8:45 AM flight to Pittsburgh where they presented to a jury of world renowned architects, developers and urban planners. In addition to the prize money, the team gained priceless experience in collaboration on a large scale urban design project.